More Than Anything in the World, Vol. 2, 1944

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A 1944 Court-Martial

Chances to serve in a meaningful way beyond simple service or support capacity were even less available in the Navy and the Marine Corps. After quitting UCLA in the latter part of his senior year to financially assist his mother and nearly destitute family, Robinson took a variety of sports.

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There, after making corporal and distinguishing himself on the firing range, he became a commissioned officer after meeting and becoming friendly with heavyweight champion Joe Louis. Robinson and other black aspirants had informed Louis that no African Americans were ever admitted to officer candidates' school at Fort Riley.

Using his influence with the secretary of war's civilian aide, Truman Gibson, himself black, Louis quietly had the situation investigated. In January Robinson and several other African Americans were commissioned second lieutenants. Considering his past, it was not surprising that Lieutenant Robinson, as a platoon leader and his unit's morale officer, soon made it a point to strenuously object to many of the segregated practices at the fort.

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In one instance he engaged in an animated telephone shouting match with a white major over whether black soldiers deserved fuller access to the installation's post exchange PX. Further, he refused to play football for the post when not allowed to play also on its all-white baseball team.

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When his commanding officer reminded the lieutenant that he could be ordered to play, Robinson agreed that was so but remarked that he could not be ordered to play well. In early the year-old cavalry-trained officer found that he had been reassigned to Camp Hood, located about 40 miles southwest of Waco, Texas. Lieutenant Robinson soon became informally attached to a black tank unit, the st Tank Battalion, which later distinguished itself in the European theater's Battle of the Bulge. Camp Hood was a posting many African Americans hated, given the racial climate there. Camp Hood had already earned a dismal reputation among black officers and enlisted men, not only because of complete segregation on the post but also because neighboring towns such as Killeen and Temple were so inhospitable.

These mostly farming communities were replete with hard-core racists eager to administer lessons to unwary black soldiers who might think present military status transcended time-honored racial etiquette. A plague for black soldiers stationed at many of the southern training camps—especially when civilian bus lines held the contract for transporting soldiers both on and off the posts—was obtaining that transportation. More than a year before Robinson's bus encounter took place, a friend of the civilian aide Gibson commented on Camp Hood's extreme case.

In his letter, he described the camp as "one of the worst situations in the whole AUS [Army of the United States]" and went on to remark, "There is hostility between [military police and black personnel] and segregation on interstate buses operating on the post, and segregation in the post facilities and theaters.

In his letter to Gibson after his arrest on July 6, , Robinson described the incident on the bus at Fort Hood and asked for advice on appealing to the press. The second page of Robinson s letter to Gibson, in which he states that I don t want any unfavorable publicity for myself or the Army but I believe in fair play. On July 6, , exactly one month after D-day—assault landings in which black soldiers had participated—Lieutenant Robinson was forcibly reminded of how thoroughly Jim Crow still dominated the scene.

As he was returning that evening to the hospital, Southwestern Bus Company driver Milton Reneger brusquely instructed the lieutenant to move to a seat farther back from the one where he sat next to a fellow officer's light-skinned wife. Robinson, perhaps conscious of being an officer and a husky one at that, refused, suggesting that the driver tend to driving instead.

Robinson's sharpness of response may have been at least partially attributable to recollection of previous bus incidents at Hood and other installations regarding what blacks saw as a pattern of unfairness. As one of the st's officers remembered, "There were so many problems with the bus situation that battalion commanders and the company commanders almost let us have trucks at will to go to the town.

Later, at his stop, Robinson and the driver continued to argue, joined by the latter's bus dispatcher, Beverly Younger, who casually referred to Robinson in his presence as "a nigger. The MPs on site, none of whom outranked the lieutenant, asked him to go with them to the police headquarters to straighten out the situation. He agreed to do so. However, when they arrived at the station to meet with the camp's assistant provost marshal, a white MP ran up to the vehicle and excitedly inquired if they had "the nigger lieutenant" with them. The utterance of this unexpected and especially offensive racial epithet served to set Robinson off and he threatened "to break in two" anyone, whatever their rank or status, who employed that word.

Inside the building, further exposure to what he regarded as racially unfriendly remarks and unwarranted observations by strangers convinced the young officer that he was not going to be treated fairly.

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Observing the clumsy wielding of authority by the assistant provost marshal and the officer of the day in questioning supposed witnesses, Robinson allegedly conducted himself in a "sloppy and contemptuous" manner toward them. After he vehemently contradicted other persons' versions of the bus incident and failed to remain in the facility until called to give his own account, he was taken back to the hospital under guard and under protest.

He subsequently learned that his behavior had been construed as so spectacularly incorrect that he would now be subjected to a general court-martial. The justification given was that he had committed a number of monstrously serious transgressions—including the show of disrespect toward a superior officer and failure to obey a direct command. Thirteen depositions had been taken, attesting to Robinson's gross misbehavior.

Believing these charges to be contrived and racially motivated, Robinson determined to broadcast his account of what really happened. A letter to the secretary of the NAACP by a correspondent who identified himself only as Robinson's fellow officer alleged that "the whole business was cooked up as insubordination. In a three-page handwritten letter expressing concern but not panic, the lieutenant asked Gibson if the newspapers should be notified of the trumped-up charges.

He wondered if the trial would then receive spotlighted attention from the larger world beyond Camp Hood—a world aware that Texas, one of four states accountable for more than half of all blacks lynched through the years, possessed a chronically inflamed racial climate such that so-called "justice" was often obtained frontier-style. Robinson admitted using strong language—but only in selected company and after being provoked.

The defendant closed, "I don't mind trouble but I do believe in fair play and justice. Gibson annotated Robinson's letter, stating, "This man is the well-known athlete.

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He will write you. Follow the case carefully. Gibson, a onetime NAACP official, also counseled against seeking publicity in the matter because he thought doing so would only fan the flames. Soon afterward, headquarters at Hood started to field queries about the impending trial from other military personnel, the Pittsburgh Courier, Robinson's state senators, and miscellaneous others. Despite increased efforts to curb at least the most overt discriminatory practices on military property, embarrassing incidents were occurring all too frequently.

Only a couple of months before, Joe Louis and year-old "Sugar Ray" Robinson, the latter also a boxer in the Army, had their own bus-related set-to. It happened at Camp Sibert, Alabama. The two boxers often journeyed from camp to camp to stage exhibitions for Uncle Sam, but this time an officious MP informed Louis he could not use the telephone in the bus station when the bus he and Robinson were awaiting did not show up.

With that, the usually mild-mannered heavyweight champion voiced stiff objections directly to the base commander. In a telephone conversation with Col. Walter D.

Jim Crow, Meet Lieutenant Robinson | National Archives

When the black newspapers got word, they expressed outrage in large print: Was this the way to treat a man who not only voluntarily enlisted but gave unstintingly to the military, even donating a generous portion of boxing winnings to the Army-Navy Relief Fund? To a thoroughly indignant press, it was evident that not all enemies and bigots lived abroad. Further, such warped behavior called into question why black Americans should risk lives overseas when unfairness flourished at home to such a perverse degree.

The Negro press hammered at this message over and over again in its "Double V" effort war against bigotry and racial intolerance both at home and abroad. The military and the Department of Justice considered the criticisms unseemly, corrosive, and bordering on disloyal. Gibson and others, including the Army's only black general, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. Army brass on any level could not have been thrilled to learn that news about the impending Jackie Robinson court-martial had reached the black papers.

Two of the most zealous publications, the Courier and the Chicago Defender, found out about the bus incident and referred to it in print. Ironically, an Army-wide directive, War Department Order 97, dated two days after the Robinson bus flap, emerged as the most widely explicit in clarifying that no discrimination on the basis of race was allowed in regard to use of recreational facilities, theaters, transportation, and the like. Even so, as if to punctuate the Army's lack of grasp about how wide and deep the issue really was, both before and after this issuance, local commanders chose to interpret the pronouncements as they wished.

In addition, unbeknown to the defendant and Washington-based authorities, Camp Hood's Inspector General's Office, the appropriate organizational level for investigating whether court-martial charges should be levied in each such case, was seeking assistance from higher sources. Despite the plea for help, Colonel Buie demurred. On August 2, the court-martial began, now with significantly altered charges, and after Robinson's transfer from the st to another tank unit, the th.

A panel of nine officers was appointed to adjudicate the case.

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Interestingly, just before the trial took place, a medical retiring board convened on July 21 to evaluate whether Robinson's temporary limited duty status should be changed to permanent. Robinson affirmed his continued interest in staying in the military as a career.

That he did so was probably due to an earlier suggestion by his commanding officer with the st, Lt. Paul Bates. Bates wanted to see if it were possible to obtain a medical waiver for the bad ankle. Bates hoped that Robinson could go overseas with his unit as morale officer if it were called up. A waiver would mean that Robinson, who after all injured the ankle prior to entering the service, would be willing to forego injury claims on the Army if reinjured overseas.

Ironically, because of his willingness to consider doing this good deed for Bates, the st, and the Army, he had been repaid not only with emotional aggravation but a dire legal situation. For it been on the trip back from Camp Hood to McCloskey General Hospital in Temple, Texas, where he was undergoing a thorough medical evaluation, that the bus incident occurred. In his court-martial testimony, Robinson recounted the events following the bus incident.

Army Legal Services Agency. Bates, a fellow Californian, was called upon at the trial to testify to his onetime company platoon leader's character. He consistently used the word "excellent" to describe Robinson's demeanor, reputation, and job performance and offered that he had tried repeatedly to get the defendant attached permanently to his battalion. The commander volunteered the information that he had thought so highly of his year-old junior officer's leadership abilities that he asked the younger man to accompany the unit overseas when it was called to do so. The court, made up of nine combat officers, found the glowing testimony highly persuasive.

Although Robinson had been counseled by both the NAACP and Gibson to obtain a civilian lawyer, he failed to do so—probably because he believed he lacked the resources to afford the legal fees. Nevertheless, his Army-appointed defense attorney, Capt. William A. Cline, a white Texan, skillfully brought out inconsistencies in prosecution witnesses' accounts, including a denial by one prosecution witness, Pfc.

Ben Muckleworth, that he had used the word "nigger" in referring to Robinson when another MP had acknowledged that Muckleworth had indeed done so. As part of the trial strategy, prosecutors reduced the final charges so as to remove reference to the bus incident as contributory to Robinson's behavior later. However, Cline, by careful questioning, managed to introduce enough into evidence to strongly suggest Robinson had been consistently confronted with a racially hostile environment.

By separating facts from interpretations, Cline introduced the very real possibility that scarcely suppressed racial animosities may have provoked Assistant Provost Marshal Gerald Bear to overreact to Robinson's assertiveness, construing it as "uppity" rather than legitimate expression of righteous resentment. Get A Copy. Paperback , pages. More Details Other Editions 1. Friend Reviews.

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